‘Abbott Elementary’ is latest in long line of TV comedies set in schools

Though streaming and cable comedies such as “Ted Lasso,” “Hacks,” “Barry” and “Only Murder in the Building” are poised to receive multiple Emmy nominations, ABC’s perceptive and smartly funny mockumentary “Abbott Elementary” may just teach them a lesson. The freshman series, a valentine to educators who overcome trials and tribulations to teach, is a leading Emmy nomination contender. 

Set in a predominately Black, grossly underfunded grade school in Philadelphia, the series stars Quinta Brunson as an eager second-grade teacher who is one of the few educators who have made it to a second year at the school. Brunson also created the series which was inspired by her mother who was a teacher in Philly for 40 years. Reviews were glowing for the series. The L.A. Times critic Robert Lloyd wrote: “The series feels fresh even as it mines the familiar. As much as characters represent an agglomeration of types, but they are well written, and the actors invest them with life.”

From the beginning of television, series set in schools have been nominated or won several awards and including Emmys and the Peabody. Let’s take the Wayback Machine 70 years ago and look at some of the earliest education TV series. 

“Mr. Peepers” (1952-55 )
NBC premiered this gentle sitcom on July 2, 1952 as a summer replacement for its “Ford Festival” series. Wally Cox was sheer perfection as Robinson J. Peepers, the shy bespectacled junior high science teacher who always got himself into weird predicaments.  The July 31, 1952 episode called “The Ventilation System” finds Peepers getting his hand stuck in a fish while trying to retrieve his pin only to have the his first paycheck sucked into an air pipe. Tony Randall also appeared as the history teacher Harvey Weskit; Georgann Johnson as Harvey’s wife ; Patricia Benoit as school nurse Nancy Remington who was Peepers girlfriend and eventual wife; Marion Lorne of “Bewitched” fame as the scattered English teacher Mrs. Gurney; and Jack Warden as the athletic coach Frank Whip.

The series was telecast live in front of an audience at the New Century Theater in New York. Critics and audiences loved the series created by David Swift but because it was a summer replacement “Peepers” wasn’t on the fall schedule. What was on the fall schedule was a sitcom about a dentist called “Doc Corkle.” As funny as a root canal, the show history after about two weeks. Waiting in the wings was “Mr. Peepers.” During its three-season run, the series won a Peabody and was nominated for eight Emmys including three for best situation comedy and one for Cox.

“Our Miss Brooks” (1952-56)
Eve Arden had been cracking wise in movies since the 1930s and had earned an Oscar nomination for the 1945 film noir classic “Mildred Pierce” when she was cast in 1948 as Connie Brooks in 1948 in the CBS radio sitcom “Our Miss Brooks.” Arden was sheer perfection as an English teacher at the fictional Madison High School. Gale Gordon played the rather sleazy principal Osgood Conklin; Jeff Chandler and later Robert Rockwell was the object of Connie’s affections – Mr. Boynton, the shy, clueless science teacher; and Richard Crenna as the nasal-voiced student Walter Denton.

“Our Miss Brooks” was an instant hit with critics and radio audience. And Connie was quite the model of the modern woman-though she pined for Mr. Boynton she was no wallflower. She single working woman who tried to make a difference in the lives of her students. While the radio series continued until 1957, CBS brought the series to television in 1952 where its popularity continued with Arden taking home the Emmy for best female star of a regular series in 1954. She had also won various honors for the radio version. The series ended in 1956, the same year a feature film version, also called “Our Miss Brooks” was released.  Educators generally gave the series an A. In fact, in 1952 Arden received an award from the Teachers College of Connecticut’s Alumni Association for “humanizing the American teacher.’

“Mr. Novak” (1963-65)
This thoughtful, thought-provoking NBC drama series didn’t shy away from such hot-button topics as racial discrimination, anti-Semitism, drug abuse and even cheating. The hour-long series won some 47 honors from various educational establishments, including the National Education Assn. Handsome James Franciscus played the young John Novak, a committed first-year English teacher at a fictional Los Angeles high school who gets involved with his students and the faculty. Dean Jagger was the school principal; after he left the series, he was replaced by Burgess Meredith. Several young actors guest starred on the series including Beau Bridges, Tony Dow, Kim Darby, Walter Koening and Bonnie Franklin. The series earned a Peabody and was nominated for four Emmys including two for Jagger.

“Room 222” (1969-1974)
Before he created the beloved “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in 1970 with Allan Burns and long before he won three Oscars for directing, writing and producing 1983’s “Terms of Endearment,” James L. Brooks created this ABC comedy series at a racially diverse Los Angeles high school.  Produced by Gene Reynolds of “MASH” fame and featuring memorable theme music by Jerry Goldsmith,“Room 222” revolved around another young idealistic and black teacher Pete Dixon (Lloyd Haynes) who teaches history while also educating his impressionable students about tolerance and compassion.  No doubt Dixon would be teaching CRT if he was working today. Denise Nicholas played warm-hearted school counselor who was also Pete’s gal pal; Michael Constantine was the principal Seymour Kaufman and Karen Valentine was the peppy cute-as-a-button student teacher and later full-time educator Alice Johnson. 

And just as “Mr. Novak” the series didn’t avoid controversial topics such as the Vietnam War, women’s rights, racial issues and even Watergate. The series was never a ratings blockbuster. In fact, ABC was planning to cancel it after its first season, but then it was nominated for five Emmys winning for outstanding new series and for supporting players Constantine and Valentine. 

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